Belgian Architect and Designer
Summary of Victor Horta
Many creative minds have been said to be undisciplined in their youth. Belgian architect Victor Horta's biographers have even gone further, describing him as "lazy" and a "dunce" as a teenager. Apparently, Horta's father eventually had enough, and as punishment, at age 16 Horta was sent to work on a construction site. There, as he later recalled, he had an epiphany, and saw the rest of his life laid out before him. Indeed, Horta would go on to become one of his country's most accomplished and innovative architects, and one of the first following Belgian independence to achieve international renown, as one of the founders of Art Nouveau in the 1890s. Horta turned to Art Deco as his professional fortunes declined in the aftermath of World War I, and though he was later to receive numerous honors late in life, he had faded largely into obscurity by the time of his death, and several of his key works have been lost. In the last fifty years Horta's reputation has dramatically recovered and he is now recognized for being one of the world's key designers at the dawn of the 20th century.
- Horta is famous for his pioneering work in Art Nouveau and the translation of the style from the decorative arts into architecture in the early 1890s. Horta's inventiveness with Art Nouveau helped to make it something of a national style in Belgium by 1900 before its swift demise in advance of World War I.
- Horta's work in Art Nouveau is marked by a keen understanding of the capabilities of industrial advances with iron and glass as structure and infill. Horta's buildings disclose an honest handling of their materials' properties, particularly the ability of iron to be twisted and bent into hairpin forms that extend seamlessly into the accompanying décor, inside and out, making the buildings "total works of art."
- Horta was an adaptable architect who transitioned from Art Nouveau to other styles such as Art Deco as public tastes dictated. Though Horta was respected during his lifetime for his brilliance with Art Nouveau, he himself predicted the style's own demise and that many of his works would be demolished eventually.
Biography of Victor Horta
Victor Horta was born in Ghent on 6 January 1861 into a large family. His father, Pierre Horta, was a luxury shoemaker, who, according to Victor, "ran his studio with such an air of superiority that for him it became an art." Victor was attracted to music at a young age, learning to play the violin. It appeared to be one of the very few things he was passionate about; nonetheless, at age 12 he was first attracted to architecture when he helped his uncle on a building site.
Important Art by Victor Horta
The Tassel House, often cited as the first Art Nouveau building. In this townhouse for one of his typical professional clients from the 1890s - in this case, one of his colleagues at the Université Libre de Bruxelles - Horta fuses the twin themes of nature and industry almost seamlessly.
As with many of Horta's famed Art Nouveau residences, the heart of the building is the central stair hall, almost a foregone conclusion given the narrow urban lots that Horta was dealt for these commissions. Here, the emphasis is on structure, which Horta makes frankly clear in the dull green iron columns that anchor the space. The thin posts blossom into a tangle of tendrils and vine-like twists at their crown, which then blend with the vines evident in the mosaic floor and the stenciled whiplash curves of the plants on the wall surfaces. They are further echoed in the forms of the chandeliers that descend from the ceiling with flower-petal-shaped shades. The effect is that the exterior natural world (largely excluded from the tight-knit urban fabric of Brussels) is now permanently brought inside, with the soothing hues of green, orange, and yellow providing a respite from the bustling noise of the street.
The stair hall is plainly visible on the exterior, with a riveted green iron I-beam serving as its foundation above the recessed main entrance before blossoming into a luminous set of stained glass windows containing the blues of water and pinks of flowering plants. In this way Horta creates a subtle play between nature and industry, with each complementing each other as essential components of the building.
The crowning achievement of Horta's career was the Maison du Peuple (House of the People) in Brussels, the new headquarters of the Belgian Workers' Party. It was in many ways a temple of Socialism, as the Maison du Peuple was a common urban structure in several European countries. Maisons du Peuple provided various communal functions that often catered to working-class citizens: libraries, cafes, recreational spaces, bakeries, clothing shops, and a large auditorium for assemblies, along with offices for the local Socialist parties. Thus Horta's structure, the national headquarters for the party that represented the interests of a large sector of the population in highly industrialized Belgium, can arguably be seen as the apotheosis of the building type.
The Maison du Peuple was a masterwork of design on several levels. In the first place, Horta had to fit the building into a highly irregular wedge-shaped site that occupied about a third of the side of a circular plaza. It was organized in a way that showed the progression from pedestrian activity on the ground floor (shops, food services), towards the offices of the Party and recreational spaces such as the library on the floors above, with the auditorium, the great assembly space for discussion, lectures, performances, and cultural and political enrichment on a mass scale, at the top. On the roofline, the building was emblazoned with signs bearing the names of individuals who had contributed to the Socialist cause, such as Karl Marx and Leon Blum. Aesthetically, it was a paean to industrial methods of construction: its iron frame was clearly visible everywhere on the interior and exterior, punctuated by rivets, with an interlaced network of iron beams forming the decoration on its ceilings. The infill consisted of either the pedestrian material of red brick or glass, reflecting a transparency of purpose.
The inauguration of Horta's building in 1899 was front-page news in Brussels, with lavish posters being printed to advertise the event and the great French Socialist leader Jean Jaurès in attendance. Even in its demise some 65 years later, the Maison du Peuple highlighted the contemporary discourse about modern architecture, as it only was demolished amid massive global protests. Its replacement by a massive, aesthetically soulless concrete skyscraper has often been cited as one of the worst results of the modern redevelopment of Brussels in the 1950s and '60s that proved disastrous for Art Nouveau.
The van Eetvelde House represents arguably the most daring and innovative of Horta's residences in Brussels, built in two primary stages; the initial one from 1895-98 and an extension constructed from 1899-1901. As in the Solvay House, Horta was given an immense amount of freedom in design, in this case, for Léopold II's minister for Congolese affairs. While the facade of the house discloses a kind of rationalist, industrial structure, consisting of an iron frame with large windows, adorned with the whiplash curves that had become Horta's trademark.
Similar to the Tassel House, the significance of the building lies in its octagonal stair-hall at the center of the initial structure, whose metallic columns frankly reveal the unusual industrial frame of the residence. They branch out into flattened arches that support a large blue-green stained-glass ceiling, whose lower portions over the staircase employ Horta's exuberant, twisted curves that continue down into the balustrades and the rugs below, the furniture, and the grain of the marble around the inner walls under the stairs). Whether intentional or not, the effect suggests the modulation of light and shade and the tangles of vines and leafy foliage in the jungles of the Congo, the colonial territory that van Eetvelde administered.
More directly, the combination of the spiral of the staircase and the web-like decor implies that the residents of the house are firmly enfolded within nature's grasp. These motifs are extended throughout the furnishings of the rest of the house - in pieces as diverse as the fireplace and the lighting fixtures - emblematic of how the residence comprises a total, seamless work of art that acts like a lush oasis from the urban environment. Horta thus arguably exploits and appropriates the natural imagery of the Congo for the pleasure of his patron, though with much less sinister undertones than the way his patron's administration of the Congo - King Léopold II's personal fiefdom - exploited its native residents to near-genocidal proportions for the profitable harvest of natural resources.
Influences and Connections
- Alphonse Balat
- Godefroy Devreese
- Eugene Viollet-le-Duc
- Paul Hankar
- Max Hallet
- Leon Furnemont
- Emile Tassel
- Edmond van Eetvelde
- Arts and Crafts Movement
- La Libre Esthetique
- Les XX
Useful Resources on Victor Horta
- Victor HortaBy David Dernie
- Horta: Art Nouveau to ModernismBy Victor Horta, Françoise Dierkens-Aubry, Jos Vandenbreeden, Palais Des Beaux-Arts
- Art NouveauBy Klaus-Jurgen Sembach